Big Picture: Web series a dream come true

When Andrew Williamson returned to Victoria last April to oversee production of Spiral, he was literally living the dream.

Twelve years ago, the former University of Victoria fine arts student had a dream that would inspire his company’s scripted web series that premières Sept. 6 on Telus Optik TV and online at spiralbackwards.com.

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“It was about six friends who were existentially connected,”said Williamson, 45. “I started to flesh that out, how cool it would be to tell their story in the present, but also in the past.”

He credits co-executive producer and showrunner Karen McLellan (The Next Step) with developing an engrossing story that ponders the existence of past lives over seven episodes.

“She’s done a lot of narratives that occur in different timelines,” said Williamson, who briefly optioned their creative collaboration before deciding to produce it as a digital series through his company Off Island Media.

Williamson, who went on to pursue film studies at University of British Columbia in the early 1990s, said coming back here to shoot his dream project was fulfilling on many levels.

“Telus, for one thing, was very interested in doing productions outside of Vancouver,” said Williamson, who successfully pitched the project to the telecommunications company last year.

“I had a very personal connection to Victoria, there are production values that you just can’t get in Vancouver, and there’s a bit of energy and interest in supernatural vibes in Victoria,” he said.

Spiral taps into society’s fascination with other-worldly events using a familiar setting — a university campus.

The series focuses on a group of first-year students at the fictional King’s College who discover they’ve been friends and enemies forever.

Karma, past lives and dream interpretation are among phenomena explored in the series that intermingles romance, mystery and intrigue.

Spiral was filmed at the B.C. legislature, Fan Tan Alley, St. Ann’s Academy, Heritage Acres and on a tiny beach near Clover Point that they didn’t realize until shooting began was coincidentally called Spiral Beach.

Alexandra Beaton (The Next Step) heads the ensemble cast as Emma, a scholarship student whose animosity toward her privileged, self-possessed roommate Alex (Angela Palmer) is mutual.

Their co-stars include Enuka Okuma (Rookie Blue, Larry Crowe) as the college dean; Cody Kearsley (Riverdale) as Josh, the handsome campus charmer; Brennan Clost (The Next Step) as Clark, the nerd who keeps his distance; Sophie (Kailey Spear) as Alex’s free-spirited best friend; Corteon Moore (Backstage) as pre-med student David; and Louriza Tronco (Night at the Museum 3), as Grace, the philosophical eccentric.

While it initially seems like this group has nothing in common, a mysterious death brings them together, as well as a recurring dream they share that will unlock a mystery linking past to present.

For Tronco, whose gaming-obsessed character wears vintage clothing, shooting Spiral aroused deja vu inspired by her real-life past experiences in Victoria.

The Winnipeg-raised actor who got her start as a mouse in Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s The Nutcracker lived here in 2012 and 2013 while attending the Canadian College of Performing Arts.

“Victoria was so amazing, a magical place, and the college was one of the best years of my life,” said Tronco, who appeared in productions including Footloose and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Tronco, who has since appeared in screen projects including Disney Channel’s Zapped with Zendaya Coleman and the Nickelodeon series Make it Pop, said it was “awesome” to be back.

“It’s such a nice feeling being back in a city with so much going on but a small-town vibe,” said Tronco, who still draws on her experiences at the CCPA.

“I still have mentors from there to this day,” she said, referring to her film/TV coach Andrew McIlroy, acting (Shakespeare) instructor Christopher Weddell and voice teacher Marvin Regier.

Tronco, who describes Grace as “very delicate, pretty private … a strong silent type,” said one thing that attracted her to the series was its mystery and suspense elements.

Director Jill Carter (Murdoch Mysteries) and her crew, including cinematographer Simon Schneider, who used his Alexa Amira camera to capture 4K broadcast footage, “adhered to the rules of TV,” Willliamson said.

There are some obvious differences when you’re adjusting them to make a digital series, however — like having to fit the “series arc to the size of our story,” he said.

Adds Tronco: “They’re short [eight-minute] episodes so every scene and every word has a purpose, otherwise it wouldn’t have made it into the shot.”

Doing extensive market research and knowing who your audience is and where they are online is essential, said Williamson. In this case, they’re focusing on 13-21 year olds.

“The days of making something for everybody on the internet are over,” said Williamson, whose team started thinking about Facebook and Instagram before shooting even began.

“It’s driven by demographic and subject matter, and past lives fascinates many people. This felt like a good fit for a digital series because we can continue conversations on social media and our website.”

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